Outstretched hands attached to some two dozen young men push toward and upon the mostly naked young woman. She's pulled taut with her legs and arms pinned, a voluptuous torso served raw for grinning gropers. Though you can see vividly the hungry, amused faces of these party boys, their unwilling plaything's face is digitally blurred, revealing only darkness for her eyes and gaping mouth.
A technological twist on the silent scream.
This controversial image made headlines recently, mostly for the ethical dilemma behind publishing a sexual crime photo without the victim's consent. She still hasn't come forward. No one's been arrested. Mike Urban, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer, captured the assault from a fire escape when covering last year's local Mardi Gras. He reportedly watched men with the customary beads and pleas cajole young women to show their tits. When this one refused, they swarmed, stripped her and took private parts into their own hands.
To protect the victim's privacy, Urban's editors decided not to run his photos. Yet one shot's gritty reality was submitted and won the domestic news (newspaper) category in the National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism contest, a distinction rewarded with publication of the photo online and soon in a book.
But just what reality oozed into public light?
Clearly exposed is mob mentality as multihued hands press both breasts, and fingers jam through her panties. Some guys try to crawl over others to cop a feel. Smiley faces crane for a peek as one happy dude whips out a camcorder to preserve the special moment.
The scene has been pegged an act of violence, showing how quickly the line between civility and brutality can be tripped. Reports say the forced group-grope was one of many that festive night. But the Mardi Gras molesters cannot be dismissed as perverted monsters. They look jovial, clueless, entitled. They are the guys next door, our sons, caught up in an extreme rendering of "boys will be boys."
I know the party line of defining sexual assault as violence, as power abuse, not sex. But tossing this mass violation into some aberrant cesspool allows us to dissociate from the perpetrators and rise above the sexual stench of our own making. Can you view this photo of clean-cut guys as they revel in mauling anonymous body parts, and not wonder: "How are we raising our boys?"
Since researching my book on America's schizophrenic approach to sexuality, I'm often struck by how we insist on handing boys the short end of the sexual development stick. As our chastity-crusading commander in chief plunders public education and health to prove that sex without marriage causes death, disease and despair, boys receive a mere nod in the battle cry for abstinence.
In fact, the fear and shame-based abstinence-until-marriage programs funded by our tax dollars and sweeping the nation absolve boys of sexual responsibility by reinforcing tired gender roles. Boys are portrayed as slaves to their throbbing key in desperate need to unlock any warm hole. Girls are taught how and why to resist boys' predictable predatory push. Boys will be boys, girls must be gatekeepers.
Traditionalists, evolutionary psychologists and popular culture regurgitate this "fact of human nature" as divine truth. To suggest that sex ebbs and flows along a dynamic continuum between the genders, or that man is more complex than his boner, is sacrilege. Or as Bill Maher says on "Politically Incorrect," "a lot of nonsense." In a recent episode, where Maher deems men are "just after pussy," Dr. Drew Pinsky of radio's syndicated "Loveline" claims males are sexually driven by uncontrollable urges and should not be pathologized.
"We've made men to feel guilty and to feel bad about who they are," says Pinsky, "but the reality is that men do need to be contained and tamed, and we'd be sort of flinging poo if we didn't have a social order."
Apparently that social order dumps the self-restraint load on the female half of the species. Boys must try, girls must stop them. With all the hype about today's promiscuous kids causing chaos and the moral decline of our nation, male sexual behavior has changed very little. Studies show that rates of sexual intercourse for boys have remained steady or declined since the good ol' days. Current sermonizing by the right and sensationalizing by the media is really about fear of today's jacked-up female sexuality -- what's good for the gander, we are told, is dangerous for the goose.
And kids learn our double standard well. A current study led by Indiana University School of Medicine's Gregory D. Zimet shows that boys who initiate sex have high self-esteem, whereas girls who initiate sex have low self-esteem. Although Zimet suggests stud-slut societal dynamics at play, he tells Reuters, "Clearly, it makes little sense to try to lower the self-esteem of young adolescent boys." He adds that "the findings do suggest that helping girls to feel more self-confidence and self-respect may help them to delay initiation of sexual intercourse."
Great, forget teaching our boys sexual mutuality. Let's turn back the clock and help our girls more confidently play the traditional push-and-pull game of sex. Certainly the path pounded by conservative peddlers of virginity and marriage to cure America's social ills -- everything from poverty, teenage pregnancy and crime to general depletion of decency -- leads to cooling the improper sexual heat of girls.
At my first sexuality conference three years ago, I interviewed a sex therapist from the South who was surprised that the 1996 Welfare Reform Act's funding of abstinence-only programs had stirred me into the field of sexology. "Well, if I had a daughter," he said, "I'd want her to save it for marriage. There's a lot of crazy shit out there these days."
"Did you teach your two sons to save themselves for marriage?" I asked.
"Nah, I didn't talk to them about sex," he grinned. "They're boys. They knew what to do."
In my research I often meet men of all ages and backgrounds whose parents told them zero about sex. Many were slipped a Playboy or porn video as soon as their voices started changing. A surprising number had a dad who dragged them at around age 15 to a prostitute, or brothel in Las Vegas or Amsterdam, to learn to become a man.
But as long as we play the antediluvian "me virile man, you virtuous woman" script on this modern stage of equality, freedom and mass-marketed sexuality, we'll remain clueless when wild parties go bad. Too many cherry-popping contests, frat-party trains and other gangbangs are treated as cautionary tales for immodest girls. But what about harm to the male psyche when coercive sex is shrugged off as opportune release or right of passage?
Now that I am pregnant, several childless acquaintances have been pleased to learn that I'm having a boy. "I'd probably want a boy," they say. "Girls are more difficult. You have to worry about them getting pregnant or date raped."
But why not worry about your son impregnating or raping someone's daughter? Girls don't do these things to themselves. Are the consequences less profound when you're not part of the cleanup crew?
A psychologist and sex educator for more than 25 years, Bob Selverstone trains parents how to raise their kids to be sexually healthy adults. He often shares one study that shows when moms talk to sons and daughters about sex, both delay initiation. When dads talk to daughters, they delay. When dads talk to sons, they accelerate. The implication is that although dads want to protect the innocence of their daughters, their dominant message to sons is "go for it."
But despite the schoolyard euphemisms of first base, second, third and home run, sex is not about scoring. Sex is most explosive when it's about connecting, giving as much as receiving. If I don't teach my son sexual respect and responsibility -- or that sex is so much more than poking body parts and getting off -- then I shouldn't be surprised at some future Mardi Gras to see his face in a sea of other red-blooded males "seizing the moment," as someone else's daughter silently screams.